Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Rumsfeld and the Munich Analogy

Speaking to an audience at the American Legion’s annual convention yesterday, Donald Rumsfeld made a classic blunder:

Drawing parallels to efforts by some nations to appease Adolf Hitler before World War II, Rumsfeld said it would be "folly" for the United States to ignore the rising dangers posed by a new enemy that he called "serious, lethal and relentless."
There’s a term for this – it’s called the Munich Analogy. You remember those pictures of Neville Chamberlain, returning from his Munich meeting with Hitler, announcing that there was “peace in our time”? We all know what happened next.

Throughout the Cold War, when anyone suggested that we should negotiate with the Soviets, there was always someone who would assert that this was impossible. One can not negotiate with dictators! They see that only as a sign of weakness – give them an inch and they’ll take a mile. Dictators only understand force! Remember Munich!

The fundamental problem with historical analogy is that all historical events are contingent on a very high number of variables which can not be reproduced. Analogies can never give us hard and fast rules for predicting the future. The only certain lesson learned at Munich was that you can not negotiate with Hitler. This told us nothing about whether we could negotiate with the Soviets. Of course, there was always a fair amount of cognitive dissonance involved. The Munich Analogy was favored by anti-Communist “hawks” who were frequently very prepared to engage in “constructive engagement” with authoritarian regimes, so long as they were anti-Communist. So the Munich Analogy was never even fully accepted by the people who used it.

In Rumsfeld’s case, there’s a second problem. No one is in fact suggesting “appeasement” of the terrorists. Critics of Rumsfeld and the Bush Administration generally argue the problem is not that we are fighting terrorism, but that we are fighting it badly, first and formost by sapping our military strength in a country that, at least before the war began, was not an important player in world terrorism. So Rumsfeld’s use of the Munich Analogy is wrong on all counts. And then there’s this:
Rumsfeld obliquely acknowledged mistakes and setbacks in Iraq, quoting the French statesman Georges Clemenceau as calling all wars "a series of catastrophes that results in victory."
That’s right. The Secretary of Defense is taking solace in the words of the man who led France during World War I, a monumental disaster of a war that is the very definition of pointless slaughter. That’s one analogy he seems bent on fulfilling, one we can certainly do without.

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